Night Court—Navigating the Ethics of Watching Others Hurt

In night court, even though the person watching on the wooden pew gets to observe the trial as if watching a show, there lies a real person on the other side of the barrier whose real life could be breaking down.

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By Zihe Huang

In the heart of Lower Manhattan from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., the Manhattan Criminal Court at 100 Center Street embraces a New York slogan recognized around the world: “the city that never sleeps.” Night court takes place there, which are evening court sessions that allow individuals with busy schedules to address their legal matters with the least disruption to their day-to-day schedule as possible. With each case, night court begins with the prosecutor setting a recommended bail, and the defense responds by proposing their own bail amount. Finally, the judge decides on an amount and sets the court date.

I had heard about night court at the end of January through one of my mom’s good friends. Since I found the legal system to be captivating, on a quiet Friday night, my parents and I walked over to the courts with the intention of seeing firsthand how the judicial system works.

Upon arrival, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of nerves, unsure of what to expect. All I knew about night court before attending was that it was open to the public and involved arraignments held at night. I did, however, expect there to be other spectators at the trial. After making it through security and swinging the large metal door leading to the courtroom open, my nerves only grew when my expectation was not met. Aside from me and my parents, the only other people in the court were those involved in the legal procedure and the defendant.

 Despite how rewarding the experience could have been, due to my nerves, I felt quite uncomfortable most of my time there, as if I was intruding upon an intimate moment for those on trial. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to bear making eye contact with the defendants, I stared intently at the floor or at the wall, my heart pounding as the judge reached their verdicts. At one point, a few family members who had personal ties to the cases were also present, which made me feel even worse for watching. Here I was, watching these cases for educational purposes while the families around me had actual stakes and personal involvements with those on trial. 

In the hour I was there, I saw three fast-paced cases: one of a woman who was at her boyfriend’s house when the police found her boyfriend in possession of cocaine, another of an older homeless immigrant man with no family who had repeatedly broken into and stolen from a Macy’s after being banned from the store, and a veteran who had trespassed onto someone’s property. 

After I left, I went online to see if other visitors shared similar sentiments or had their own opinions to share about the experience. Yet, when I went to search “night court,” I was surprised to see that it was advertised as a tourist attraction in a variety of papers, including The New York Post with their article, “City’s night court becoming a tourist attraction” and NBC News“Is Night Court a Real Thing?”

Everyone should experience night court at least once in their life to be educated on how one of the most prominent systems in our country operates. Yet, the fact that night court has been listed in various New York City guidebooks as a must-see spot for tourists doesn’t sit right with me. On one hand, I find it essential that everyone is aware of how our country’s criminal justice system works and can see it for themselves. A well-run democracy is one whose citizens are educated on civic affairs, so night court would be beneficial for higher-level government members or whole law classes to visit in order to enrich their learning experience. On the other hand, portraying the night court as a tourist attraction is the wrong way to go about it. At the end of the day, even with no ill intentions, these tourists are gaining excitement and enjoyment from the upheaval of someone’s life, which is extremely dystopian. 

Even though the person watching on the wooden pew gets to observe the trial as if watching a show, there lies a real person on the other side of the barrier whose real life could be breaking down. In the NBC News article, Brooklyn attorney Edward McCarthy refers to night court as a “just-off-Broadway show with a cast of thousands, ever-changing story lines…real drama, as well as occasional comic relief.” This is the completely wrong way to view it and frankly extremely insensitive to those on trial. Diminishing night court as “occasional comic relief” is a perfect example of society’s obsession with finding entertainment in others’ misfortune or drama. 

This phenomenon is why we love gossip so much and why we laugh when someone slips on a banana peel. The German word schadenfreude, meaning “harm-joy,” describes this sensation as the pleasure derived from another’s misfortune, which may serve as a coping mechanism for one’s insecurities or unhappiness. Similarly, this is why reality TV shows such as Survivor, Dance Moms, and The Real Housewives franchise are so popular—the unrealistic suffering, fighting, and backstabbing grab our attention. Even though these shows are unscripted, they are staged in a way that sets up constant drama because directors know what the audience wants. Deeply rooted within us, we as a society enjoy seeing people hurt.

While I am not against tourist blogs and newspapers broadcasting night court as a place for people to visit, since I do think it is a beneficial procedure to watch, instead of advertising it as free entertainment, it needs to be portrayed as an educational experience where visitors can come out with a deeper understanding of such a rich and complex system of our country. Collectively, we need to be more intentional with how we view others’ suffering, whether that entails checking ourselves when we laugh at someone hurting themself or examining practices that encourage this behavior. By rewriting the narrative around night court, a moral code of respect can be established, ensuring that those watching can get the most out of their experience while remaining respectful to those on the other side of the divider.